From Fear To Trust, A Tribute To How Clicker Training Saved My Horse

Miss Introienne "Missy"

In loving memory to the one who started it all.

"Miss Introienne" 1/28/90-11/17/2017


This page is dedicated to my beloved horse, Missy. I got Missy when I was fifteen and she was an unbroken three year old. Neither of us should have survived that match up, but somehow we managed and even thrived! Missy had many "issues" when I got her, including a severe mistrust of people due to some truly horrific abuse.

Missy was turned out in a field from the time she was a baby until she was about a year old. And while this sounds like a pretty nice way to grow up, it means that she had no idea of how to be handled by humans and would have required a lot of time and patience to teach her what was needed. Unfortunately, the people who were in charge of handling her decided they had no time, and therefore they had no patience. Now I know Missy well enough to know that she put up a good struggle to their handling attempts, however I also know that if you are going to handle animals you need to go at their pace. These folks actually fractured Missy's hip during their fight to teach her to have her feet picked up. That is not an easy thing to do.

This resulted in Missy trying to kill anyone who later went near her feet. This is a critical skill for any horse to have because they need to have the blacksmith work on them every 6-8 weeks. I spent hours working with Missy on this matter and it took me a full two years to handle her hind feet safely. In the process she managed to knock me down, kick me in the head, step on my feet and leave me in tears repeatedly. But still, when all was said and done, I could finally handle her feet. I had earned Missy's trust and I can pretty much do anything to her. The blacksmith, however, was an entirely different story.

I spent years crying and not being able to eat anything the day of our blacksmith appointments. I was charged "inconvenience fees", I was "fired" as a client, I fired many blacksmiths for trying to hit Missy. I spent a lot of time explaining the situation to every new blacksmith for them to roll their eyes at me and say that they knew what they were doing, only to have them turn around and try to hit her or berate me for not training her. The problem was, I could handle her. They could not. How on earth do you teach an animal who only trusts you to let someone else handle them?

Another challenging part to all of this was the "advice" I would receive from people, despite the fact that I did not ask for their input. All of the advice entailed beating her, selling her or putting her down. Everyone was quick to forget that this "beast" was the best friend and life long dream come true of a 15 year old girl. They were also quick to forget that it was violent handling that got Missy to this point.

Violent handling would not get her out.

After a while I resorted to sedating Missy. I had to learn how to give intravenous injections. We made progress on her front feet, but still, we only had moderate success on her hind feet, and her "bad" foot looked awful.

After 11 years of this (yes, I wrote that right!) I attended the Clicker Expo in Orlando Florida. I went there for a dog training conference, but much to my delight, there was a horse trainer there by the name of Alexandra Kurland. I was so excited to hear what she had to say and I went home with a ton of new ideas to try with Missy. The day after I got home I had a blacksmith appointment scheduled. As the blacksmith got out of the car I told him I was not sedating Missy today. He slowly said "okay". Then I told him I was going to try clicker training! Again, he slowly said "okay" with a tone that told me he thought I was crazy and he thought he was going to die.

I had briefly warmed Missy up before the blacksmith had arrived with clicking her for lowering her head (a calming behavior to a stressed horse) and also for touching her nose to my open palm. She started to get that the click meant something good was happening, and even better, that she could make the click (good things) happen. As the blacksmith approached I clicked her for standing still. As he touched her leg I clicked her for lifting her foot. I was on a non-stop click marathon for any behavior at all that was not her blowing up. Even if she snatched her foot away from him, I would click her for having four feet on the ground, even if it was only on the ground to push off again.

Another cool thing was that because she was eating so much, I could clearly see when she stopped breathing because she would stop chewing and become very still, like a calm before the storm. For Missy, if she holds her breath it means she is about to freak out. This allowed me to refocus her attention. I found that I had about a of a half second to do this.

After we finished working on her (and we did finish all four feet without any major explosions, a first with or without sedation!) the blacksmith stepped back, scratched his head and said he did not quite understand what just happened but he could not believe it worked.

I recall one visit I did not use any food until the end of the appointment. My blacksmith at one point said to give her a treat and then exclaimed "Wait a minute, you aren't using any treats today!". My blacksmith has even commented that Missy has become a favorite to work on. Neither of us ever expected to hear that!

The bottom line is that I never expected to get past this issue with Missy. Clicker training has taught me that pretty much anything is possible as you long as you don't give up and don't get angry. Positive training is no silver bullet quick fix. It is a process of building a relationship and trust. As soon as you add violence, force or fear to that equation, you remove all of the good you can do. As frustrating as this long journey has been, I will be forever thankful to Missy for the lessons she has taught me and I would not change a single second.